Friday, January 19, 2018

Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead: review

Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
368 pp
Rs 499

[Published by India Today mag, July 3, 2017:]

Colson Whitehead’s novel, Underground Railroad, works well as a literary thriller of sorts set in the pre-Civil War era, with all the excitement of a physical chase – a cat and mouse game between the slave and the slave catcher, with the latter closing in upon his quarry all the time.

At the centre of the story is Cora, an African slave on a cotton pla
ntation in Georgia, ‘an outcaste even among her fellow Africans’ because her mother, Mabel, managed to run away, leaving her daughter and her fellow slaves to their fate. Cora is welcomed to womanhood by four rapists who drag her behind the smokehouse to finish their job. Nobody intervenes. ‘The Hob women sewed her up’, the narrator informs us clinically.

When Caesar, a young slave from Virginia, decides to include her in his plans to escape through the Underground Railroad, it does not take Cora too long to give in even though both of them know it would be Death for them if they are caught, especially after Cora kills a white boy in order to escape from his clutches on the way. Accompanying them is Lovey, another young slave, whom they lose at this point.

The Underground Railroad is not simply a metaphor; it’s an actual track with a box car led by a steam engine that occasionally harbours refugees and conveys them to their freedom. At one of the stations there is even a cave-in, ‘a ruse to camouflage the operation below’.   

Close on their heel is Ridgeway, the most brutal of slave catchers, who despises Cora more because her mother managed to escape him. After a while Caesar’s and Cora’s paths diverge. Help comes from unexpected quarters in unexpected ways – from Sam, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher – amateur rescuers, sympathizers and raw abolitionists who eventually have to buckle before the powerful evil forces. 

As a character says, ‘And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all […] This nation shouldn’t exist […] for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty.’

Whitehead’s accounts of the horrors of slavery are unsparing. He writes about them unflinchingly. Yet one senses a distance between the writer and his work. The narrative lacks psychological depth that would hook readers who demand more.
Colson Whitehead

No comments:

Post a Comment